Dear Blog Readers,
I spent four days in Ireland last week for coverage of Pope Francis’ visit there and it was probably the most eye-opening trip I have ever taken with a Pope. I was shocked and appalled by the horrifying treatment of women and children by the Catholic Church in Ireland for decades. I had heard about it before but had never paid close attention.
Perhaps the most chilling story of the visit was that of the bones of the babies in Tuam.
On Sunday afternoon as Pope Francis held his final Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, hundreds of protesters on the other side of the country gathered in the small village of Tuam to march in a procession to an old septic tank with the bodies of nearly 800 babies. The tank is next to the plot where the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home once stood, a church-run institution for unwed mothers and their children.
A few years ago, local historian Catherine Corless, after pouring over the documents from the home, birth and death records and local burial lists, discovered there were 796 children’s bodies piled up in the deserted septic tank. The nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours had not bothered to have them buried, preferring to quietly dump them.
These were the children of the unmarried mothers forced to live at the Mother and Baby Home, the children who died while there and not given a proper burial. The care of these children in these homes was abysmal and death rates far above the rest of population. Malnutrition, whooping cough and measles are among the causes of death listed for the babies.
On Sunday the protesters read out all of their names: Mary Cafferty, 3 months; John Joseph Murphy, 10 months; Annie Tyne, 3 months; Baby Byrne, 1 day, Mary O’Brien, 4 months, Patrick Mullaney, 18 months, Thomas Connelly, 3 months; Keiran Hennelley, 14 months…
They placed little baby shoes with black mourning ribbons on them on the ground.
A woman who lived in a Mother and Baby Home tightly gripped a teddy bear as she walked towards the tank, the anguish and pain written on her face.
Peter Mulyran who once lived in the home was among the group. When the names were done, he spoke up: “100 meters away from here is the graveyard and yet these babies were put in a sceptic tank,” he said. And the crowd answered, “shame, shame, shame.”
Annette Mckay spoke up: “to my sister Mary Margaret who lies in that sceptic tank – I am coming for you. You are not going to stay there.”
Mckay’s mother was born in Galway and got pregnant when she was 17-years-old. She was brought to the Mother and Baby Home. She gave birth to Mary Margaret who died after six months of whooping cough and measles.
“We want them to excavate the site, they can take the DNA from us, the relatives,” Mckay explained to the AP team. “And they can give me Mary Margaret and I will take Mary Margaret back to England to be with her mother.”
Mulyran lived in the home with his mother Delia until he was four and given away to a violent foster father. Delia had been taken away from her family at age 17 by the same parish priest who has impregnated her and delivered to a baby home. In an interview with Irish national television, he described his mother Delia as simply “afraid to talk.” After she got pregnant a second time, she was forced into a Magdalene laundry where she lived the rest of her life as a slave.
Mulyran did not know he had a sister until recently when Catherina Corless reached out to him telling him about a name, Marian Bridget Mulyran, who died at nine months in the home in 1954, but never was buried.
“I don’t know why the order, the nuns, did such a cruel thing. They didn’t even put them in coffins. They just wrapped them up in a towel or something and put them down underground, never to be seen or heard of again,” said Mulyran. He has vowed to recover his sister’s remains before he dies.
The Irish government will decide this fall whether they will remove the remains and do the DNA testing.
I started getting a sense before I left Rome about the abuses of the church in Ireland when my colleague did an interview with activist and head of Ireland’s Amnesty International, Colm O’Gorman. He said he was among the millions of Irish Catholics who thronged to see John Paul II when he visited Ireland in 1979 and it was not long after that that he was raped by a priest. He eventually learned that his personal pain was part of something much wider.
“When we talk about abuse in Ireland we are not simply talking about the rape and abuse of children by diocesan priests, we are talking about abuses on an industrial scale on a systemic level, in state-funded, Catholic Church operated institutions where children were subjected to depraved physical violence and abuse, to acts that constituted torture, to forced labor, to illegal detention, to really vicious treatment,” explained O’Gorman, adding, “Ninety-percent of witnesses who came forward to give evidence to the commission that was established to investigate what happened in these institutions reported physical abuse. As well as being beaten, they spoke about being burnt and scalded, whipped and held under water, these are extreme acts of violence.”
O’Gorman organized a demonstration during the Pope’s visit during which hundreds of protesters marched through the streets of Dublin to the last Magdalene Laundry to close in 1996.
Ireland once had many Magdalene Laundries in which “fallen women,” a category that apparently included prostitutes, unwed pregnant women, even flirtatious girls, were closed up to work as slave laborers washing laundry under the strict control of nuns. Their children were given away. At least 10,000 women went into these homes, many, like Delia Mulryan never came out.
Here is how activist Colm O’Gorman describes the laundries: “women were detained illegally and subjected to forced labor, they were forced to wash the dirty sheets of the church and of society, simply because they were women, because of their reproductivity. So when we talk about abuse in Ireland, we are talking about widespread systemic abuse on an industrial scale that was covered up, and permitted by the Roman Catholic Church, where known offenders were allowed to abuse with increased depravity and with absolute impunity.”
During his visit the Pope met with eight victims of the abuse and Associated Press got a chance to interview two of them after the meeting.
Paul Redmond was born at the Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home and adopted when he was 17 days old. He told the AP that the Pope “didn’t really seem to have a deep understanding of what happened in Ireland in terms of institutional abuse… while the rest of the world closed down institutions from 1900, the Catholic Church kept them going in Ireland into the 80s and 90s. And Pope Francis was quite shocked by the fact that 150,000 women and children went through those institutions. He was taken aback when I told him about the banished babies being sold to America, over 3,000 babies, and that the babies in the homes were used for medical experiments and vaccine trials and that at least 6,000 babies died in all of the homes.”
Clodagh Malone was born in the St. Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home in Dublin and adopted at 10 weeks old. She said she has always felt distanced from the Catholic Church because “the church just saw us as bastards.”
The nuns would tell the mothers they needed to dress up their baby nicely one day and then the mother knew her child was about to be taken from her. She had no choice in the matter.
Malone and Redmond explained that mothers who lost their children were told by the nuns that looking for them would be a sin and if they did so “they were evil, the devil,” and they would “burn in hell.”
Malone and Redmond asked Pope Francis to help all those Irish mothers who are still alive by declaring that looking for your own child is not a sin.
“There are a lot of elderly women, particularly in the countryside who have lived 30, 40, 50, 60 years in fear. That would mean a lot to them,” Redmond told the Pope.
The Pope did meet this request. During his Mass the next day in Dublin the Pope began with an un-scheduled speech in Spanish in which he made a sweeping apology for the abuses. In it he said the words that Malone and Redmond had requested, “We ask forgiveness for those children who were taken from their mothers, and for all those times those single mothers looked for their children and were told that looking for their children from whom they were separated, was a mortal sin. That is not a mortal sin. It is the fourth commandment. We ask forgiveness.” (The Fourth Commandment is “Honor thy Father and Thy Mother”)
Surely it is too little, too late for the church.
I am still coming to grips with the horror of all these stories. A lovely Irish woman I met on the plane to Dublin told me that sex was always considered a dark and evil thing in Ireland and was used by the church to oppress women. But the idea of priests and nuns being so beastly with women and children is difficult to fathom. And why did it go on for so long?
As I headed to the airport on my last day, I asked the taxi driver if he could stop by the last of the Magdalene Laundries to close in 1996, an austere, grey-brick building which still stands on Sean McDermott street. He took me by, and I jumped out to photograph some of the baby shoes and notes that protesters left during the Papal visit. As I stood there, an elderly man walked up and told me he lived in the neighborhood and he remembered when it was still open, everyone knew but no one could do anything. He was eager to tell me his story. But my taxi was waiting, meter running, and I had to rush off. So, I left him there on the sidewalk staring mournfully at the little baby shoes.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.